Thursday, March 26, 2015

Alcohol panic crosses a new threshold

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 25.)

You know hysteria over alcohol has reached an entirely new level when a waitress refuses to serve a glass of sparkling wine to a pregnant woman.

It happened last week in Auckland. The woman, 36 weeks pregnant with her second child, was out for dinner with her husband to celebrate their wedding anniversary. She said she was flabbergasted and embarrassed when the waitress refused her request.
The duty manager backed his staff member, claiming he had discretion under law to refuse service “for health reasons”. (Wrong: the law stipulates only that minors and intoxicated people are barred from being served.)

The woman, a teacher, was compensated with a free ginger beer. How bloody humiliating.
To his credit, the co-owner of the bar subsequently apologised for his over-zealous staff and acknowledged they had no right to do what they did. But he added – and here’s the significant bit – that he could understand why they acted that way, given health warnings about the effects of intoxication and growing pressure from society and the authorities to exercise “host responsibility”.

So this is what it has come to. Alcohol is now so demonised that an apparently intelligent, mature, sober woman in the last weeks of a healthy pregnancy is denied a single glass of wine because busybody bar staff are worried that it will pose a threat to her baby’s health.
To be sure, foetal alcohol syndrome, whereby chronic brain damage is done to babies exposed to excessive alcohol in the womb, is a terrible thing. But I suspect its risks have been greatly overstated.

A generation ago, we’d never heard of it. Women knew intuitively not to drink heavily during pregnancy, but I know of none who abstained completely.
My wife drank in moderation throughout her pregnancies and all four of our children are normal (at least as far as I can tell). The same was true of our friends.

But women are now are so intimidated by health warnings that they daren’t touch a drop of alcohol from the moment their pregnancy is confirmed till the baby is safely delivered. This is crazy.
The mantra promoted by anti-liquor obsessives in public health agencies and universities is that no amount of alcohol is safe. No doubt that’s true, in a strictly theoretical sense, but it’s also theoretically correct that you can’t venture out in your car without risking an accident.

That doesn’t deter us from driving. As with so many things in life, we make sensible, balanced judgments about what poses an unacceptable degree of risk. If our lives were to be governed by fear of theoretical harm, we would spend our lives cowering indoors.
The trouble is, control freaks and moral crusaders in positions of influence within the bureaucracy and academia don’t trust ordinary people to make common-sense decisions about how they conduct their lives.

Through a long campaign of scaremongering (mostly funded by the taxpayer), they have largely succeeded in persuading society that because a small minority of drinkers over-indulge in alcohol and do bad things to themselves and others, everyone must be subjected to prohibitions.
Because a few women recklessly binge-drink during pregnancy, at obvious risk to their babies, all pregnant women are now made to feel guilty and irresponsible if they have a single glass of wine.

This is absurd. Britain’s National Health Service guidelines state that experts are still unsure how much alcohol is safe in pregnancy, so the best approach is not to drink at all. Call this the failsafe option.
More realistically, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists says small amounts of alcohol (not more than one to two units once or twice a week) have not been shown to be harmful.

It’s a big leap from there to saying that pregnant women must abstain totally.  But the anti-liquor obsessives have created such a climate of moral panic that even bar staff now feel empowered to tell a sober, mature woman what she may or may not drink.
The police, too, have been caught up in this moral crusade, enforcing the new drink-driving laws with a rigour that comes close to harassment. Drivers are likely to encounter police checkpoints anywhere and at any hour of the day – even on their way to work in the morning.

Police justify this by saying people can still be over the limit from the night before. But really, how many serious accidents are caused by drunks driving to work? It’s ridiculous, and it lends weight to the suspicion that it’s more about revenue gathering than road safety.
Of course the statistics look good if they show that police  have trapped hundreds of slightly over-the-limit drivers, thereby preventing (or so they would like us to believe) mayhem and carnage on the roads. But this over-zealous crackdown risks alienating public goodwill, especially when anecdotal evidence suggests that people dialling 111 about what might be called “real” crime – break-ins, shoplifting, stock thefts and the like – are often told the police don’t have the resources to respond.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Top Gear and its tedious laddishness

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 20.)
THEY’RE a strange lot, the Poms. They eat something called supper. They “take” baths (one a week is the norm, I believe). They drive lorries.
They wear quaintly named garments (mackintoshes and vests, for instance), they get terribly excited about something they call foopball, and they invented the world’s only sport where you can play for five days and not get a result

As if all that weren’t weird enough, the Poms adore Top Gear.
My idea of torture is to be strapped into a chair and forced to watch endless repeats of Top Gear. I would rather be tethered to a pole in front of an Islamic State encampment with an insulting cartoon of the prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) hung around my neck.

It’s not that I’m not interested in cars. I always read the Dom Post’s Saturday motoring pages and can even tell you that Fairfax Media’s motoring editor is 1.88 metres tall. (I know this because he tells us at least once a month, under the guise of illustrating the headroom in the car he’s testing.)
No, it’s the juvenile antics and relentless “laddish” humour of Top Gear that I can’t abide. In fact I abhor the whole British cult of laddishness, which seems contrived to give grown men licence to remain in a state of perpetual adolescence.

Top Gear strikes me as a slightly desperate celebration of Britishness in a world where being British doesn’t quite cut it the way it used to. Its male fans are probably the sort of people who have erotic fantasies involving Kate Bush, or perhaps Nigella Lawson, and who yearn for Pink Floyd to reform. 
I cringe at the sight of James May. He’s one of those shabby, ageing Englishmen who seem to think it cool to still wear his hair long even when it’s grey and straggly. I can’t think of any older man with long hair who wouldn’t look better if it were cut short, but May probably imagines it makes him look like a rock god.

Then there’s the little guy whose name I can never remember – the cute, perky one that women probably feel like mothering. I can’t look at him without thinking of Davy Jones from the Monkees.
But most of all Top Gear is associated with Jeremy Clarkson, whose main function seems to be to get into trouble on a regular basis so as to reinforce the programme’s image of irreverent laddishness (that word again) and devil-may-care disregard for propriety.

This plays well to Top Gear’s gormless fans (you know they’re gormless from the uncritically rapt looks on the faces of the studio audience) and ensures the show is never out of the headlines for long.
Clarkson comes across as a loudmouth – a clever and witty loudmouth, but a loudmouth nonetheless. He’s a big man and I imagine he was probably a bully at school.

He’s casually disparaging toward other cultures, which reinforces the sense that Top Gear represents the old English mindset that the wogs start at Calais and all non-Anglo-Saxon cultures exist to be mocked.
It was no surprise to learn that he’s a Chelsea Football Club supporter. That’s a laddish outfit too, of a deeply unattractive kind, with a history of hooliganism and xenophobia. (The racist yobbos who monstered a black man trying to board a train in Paris recently were Chelsea supporters. No surprises there.)

I can, however, understand why a petition supporting Clarkson would attract lots of signatures. People feel cowed and oppressed by political correctness and get a quiet thrill when someone has the balls to defy it, as Clarkson frequently does. Someone has described him as television’s answer to the Duke of Edinburgh, a man widely admired for the same reasons.
We have yet to learn exactly what triggered the latest Top Gear furore. There was some sort of altercation in a hotel restaurant. One report said Clarkson punched a producer when he found out no hot food was available after a long day’s filming.

I was right, then – he’s a bully. It’s easy to become irritable when you’re tired and your blood sugar levels are low, but most people stop short of throwing punches.
Clarkson has now been suspended by the BBC and the three remaining episodes of the current Top Gear series were cancelled.

The whole pantomime unfolded as if following a script, but it stirred up the tribal Top Gear fans and might breathe enough life into the tired old formula to keep it wheezing along for another series.
Clarkson himself seems unchastened, as well he might be. It would be surprising if the BBC sacked its most precious talent for doing exactly what his fans love him for.

More likely the whole circus will blow over. The besotted fans will keep watching and Clarkson will bank a few more million. As I say, a strange lot.
Footnote: Quite by chance, I caught a glimpse of a promo for Top Gear this week. It was the night before my column was published and I observed that James May appeared to have had a haircut. Clearly he did it purely to embarrass me, but he does look much improved.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Since we're talking about the taking of human life ...

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, March 11.)
There’s something about capital punishment that chills me to the bone.
It’s partly that it’s so coldly deliberate and pre-meditated. Most murders are impulsive acts, carried out in the rage and heat of the moment, but state-sanctioned executions are meticulously planned and orchestrated.

The condemned are taken to the place of execution and given plenty of time to contemplate their fate. What would it be like, I wonder, knowing that you’re on a bus trip to a destination from which you’ll never return? What sort of refined mental torment is that?
They are informed of the time of their execution and can see the clock ticking away. I often think it would be more humane if they were taken from their cell and hanged (or shot, or given a lethal injection, or whatever) without warning.

A strange tradition requires that they be allowed to choose their last meal. It seems cruelly, almost sadistically, banal. I imagine deciding between fish and chips or a mushroom omelette would be the last thing on the prisoner's mind.
In most cases, families are allowed to see them one last time. What a strained, unreal meeting that must be. What would they talk about? You wouldn’t exactly use the occasion to remind Uncle Pete to return that book he borrowed three years ago.

No, capital punishment is a grotesque ritual in which the act of death is only part of the punishment. Arguably the bigger part is the agony of having months, often years, in which to anticipate your last moment alive.
I realise all this must sound pathetically touchy-feely, since people who go to the gallows or the execution chamber have often done unspeakable things. Usually they have killed, and perhaps tortured or raped as well.

In the case of the two Australian citizens now awaiting execution in Indonesia, their crime was less monstrous. They were the leaders of a drug ring that tried to smuggle 8.2 kg of heroin from Indonesia to Australia.
They didn’t kill anyone, but hard drugs destroy people’s lives. You could say drug dealers commit murder by indirect means.

Does that mean they deserve to die, then? Sympathisers, including Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, say the pair have earned the right to mercy because they have transformed themselves in prison. But a cynic might counter that it’s surprising how often criminals undergo a miraculous change of heart once they’ve been caught. 
Imprisonment might have conveniently awakened their consciences, but what if their crime hadn’t been detected? They would very likely have carried on to become wealthy drug kingpins, causing untold harm and misery.

Besides, the Bali Nine knew the risk they were taking. They could hardly have been ignorant of Indonesia’s hard line on drugs.
Those are some of the arguments being trotted out in favour of Indonesia’s right to execute, and there’s an element of truth in all of them. But they fall far short of justification.

Capital punishment - state-sanctioned killing - is supposedly acceptable because society is so horrified by certain types of crime that it demands the ultimate retribution. An additional argument is that execution serves as a deterrent to others, although that’s hardly borne out in the United States, where states that retain capital punishment (such as Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi) also have the highest murder rates.
But ultimately, the debate over capital punishment comes down to a question of human rights, of which the right to life is the most fundamental.

We place such value on human life that to terminate it is considered the ultimate crime. It’s surely contradictory as well as morally wrong, then, to punish people who kill by, ahem, killing them.  Where’s the logic in showing society’s disapproval by carrying out the very act disapproved of?
There are compelling pragmatic reasons, too, for opposing capital punishment, the most obvious one being the possibility that people could be executed for crimes they didn’t commit. What country would want the death of Teina Pora on its conscience, to take an obvious example?

But above all, it comes down to respect for human life – the defining mark of a civilised society.
And here’s something to think about. In New Zealand, nearly half a million babies have been aborted since 1974.

If you believe, as I do, that the right to life applies across the board, and that it can’t be apportioned selectively for society’s convenience, then our abortion figures are as shameful as hanging people or putting them in front of a firing squad – indeed some would say worse, since unborn babies have committed no greater crime than being conceived.
Acceptance of abortion is a shocking blind spot, a grotesque double standard, in a society that rightly rejects capital punishment.  We recoil in horror at the number of executions in Saudi Arabia, China and Texas, yet turn a blind eye to the snuffing out of human life on an infinitely greater scale right here in New Zealand.

It’s both hypocritical and contradictory to condemn capital punishment while condoning the quiet extinguishing of human life every day in abortion clinics. But we tiptoe around this issue because we feel uncomfortable confronting it, and because protection of the unborn is seen as inconsistent with the rigid orthodoxies of feminism.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Phil Quin on Northland

Another terrific commentary from Phil Quin. I might just shut up and hand over to him.

Monday, March 9, 2015

My clear-thinking cousin

My distant cousin Phil Quin is a Labour Party man but he writes with great clarity and insight on the need for action against Islamic State. He posted this robust piece on the Medium website (  

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A hard choice on amalgamation

(First published in The Dominion Post, March 6.)

Me and my big mouth.
In my last column I wrote about two local government politicians from urban Auckland who came to Masterton to tell us what a wonderful thing council amalgamation was.

I pointed out that it would have been more relevant, from a Wairarapa perspective, to hear the opinion of someone from Rodney or Franklin, the two semi-rural districts that had been either wholly or partly sucked in (some might say suckered in) by Auckland.
A few days later I got an email advising of another public meeting at which the speaker would be the chairman of the Pukekohe-based Franklin local board, Andrew Baker.

Having painted myself into a corner, I had no option but to hear what he had to say.
Baker, a farmer and former policeman, turned out to be an enthusiastic and articulate advocate of amalgamation. He admitted having serious misgivings when Franklin was “pulled asunder” in 2010 (part went to Auckland, part to Hauraki and part to Waikato) and said he could empathise with people in the Wairarapa who feared losing control over their own affairs if the region was absorbed by Wellington, as proposed by the Local Government Commission.

He then proceeded to list the ways in which Franklin had benefited.
Within a year of amalgamation, council-owned Watercare Services had committed $130 million to the upgrading of Pukekohe’s “terrible” water supply. The old Franklin council could never have afforded that, Baker said.

Local roading had been greatly improved and the rural fire service, which had made do with 30-year-old trucks and second-hand hoses, had acquired a fleet of modern 4WD vehicles and shiny new gear. The bigger rating base made all the difference.
Baker said the board had control over its own $20 million budget and was well connected with local communities. The chairman was the equivalent of the former mayor and focused entirely on local issues.  

He had no opinion on what should happen in Wellington but noted that under the Local Government Commission’s plan, local decision-making powers would be greater than in Auckland.  
Perhaps his most potent argument, at least for a Masterton audience, was that Franklin rates were going down this year, the result of a rating system that puts most of the rates burden on high-value city properties.

A cynic might say that it’s in Baker’s interests to put the best possible spin on the system that employs him (the chairmanship is a full-time job), and he made no mention of the widespread and deeply  felt aversion to the new governance model in Auckland. But it was a good sales pitch nonetheless.
We are left with a hard choice. Do we place our faith in the Big Government model, or do we insist on the right of a socially and geographically distinct region like the Wairarapa to run its own affairs?

There are powerful arguments both ways, but they are more sharply defined in the Wairarapa than elsewhere because it stands apart from Wellington in a way that the Hutt Valley, Porirua and Kapiti don’t.
I can’t help wondering why the issue is presented as an either/or choice. Why not take a middle course? The three Wairarapa councils could merge, along with the two Hutt cities. Wellington and Porirua could join together, perhaps absorbing Kapiti too, and the regional council could be retained to do what it does now, though perhaps with slightly enhanced powers.

That might overcome some of the objections to the commission’s Big Bang proposal. It would deliver potential efficiency gains without re-inventing the wheel and there would be a more compelling logic to the new boundaries.
One important question that doesn’t seem to have been asked yet, at least publically, is this: assuming the commission’s plan goes ahead, who would be the super-mayor?

It’s important because whoever gets the job will not only be a powerful figure politically, but could largely determine how well the model works.
There’s little doubt that some of the negativity surrounding Auckland is due to people’s dislike of Len Brown. It follows that the public has an interest in knowing who might be the supremo of a Greater Wellington.

Most informed observers seem to assume that regional council chair Fran Wilde has her eye on the job. Certainly, she has pushed aggressively for amalgamation. But when I asked her about it this week, she kicked for touch. Whether she stood for the mayoralty, she replied, would depend on the shape of the final governance arrangements and her personal circumstances at the time.
It was a politician’s answer, as you’d expect.  But Wilde didn’t rule out standing, and I’d be surprised if it wasn’t part of her grand plan.

Friday, February 27, 2015

So what if Harre and Hooton ski together?

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 25.)
Laila Harre and Matthew Hooton, enjoying a skiing holiday together?

I know it sounds implausible. A politician of the hard Left getting on the piste, so to speak, with a high-profile political commentator from the far Right? Surely not.

Certainly the person who told me about it recently was astonished – and so I was, at least initially.
So I did some cursory research (never easier than in the Google era) and sure enough, I came across an assertion by former Labour Party activist Josie Pagani that Hooton and Harre – whom Pagani acidly described as “the great revolutionary hero” – were planning a skiing holiday in Canada with their respective families.

As far as I can ascertain, Pagani’s claim was never confirmed – but then, neither was it denied. Hooton, when questioned, played coy. He said the two families would be at the Whistler resort at the same time, but stopped short of saying they would be holidaying together. He must have known the story would cause outrage on the Left, and no doubt relished the prospect.
The reaction of my informant, who is strongly left-wing, was probably typical. She was appalled that Harre, a former Alliance MP and leader of the ill-fated Internet Mana Party, should fraternise with someone viewed by the Left as being on the dark side.

I don’t recall the words “betrayal” and “hypocrisy” being used, but they certainly hung in the air. How could someone profess to be a champion of the poor and downtrodden while skiing with a representative of the ruling class?
It wouldn’t have helped that skiing is a pursuit associated with money and privilege. Holidays at Whistler don’t come cheap. Perhaps it would have been more excusable had they gone fishing together for kahawai off the end of a wharf, or played darts at the local RSA.

But knowing there was money in Harre’s family (her grandfather was credited with inventing the jandal), I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear Harre was a keen skier.
She has always given the impression of enjoying the finer things in life. Her husband owns a medical research company and the couple jointly own a vineyard (organic, of course) on Waiheke Island.
She wears expensive clothes and I recall a friend, many years ago, showing me the handsome holiday home at Tolaga Bay that she and her husband, according to locals in the know (and there are no secrets in Tolaga Bay), spent a large sum restoring.

Does that necessarily make her a hypocrite? While I dislike Harre’s politics intensely and always get a quiet thrill when sanctimonious leftists are exposed as closet capitalists, there’s no law that says they must drive 1980 Cortinas and wear track pants. In fact there’s a long tradition of left-leaning political reformers coming from privileged backgrounds.
And while I initially shared my informant’s shock at the suggestion that Harre and Hooton were chums, on reflection I came around to a different point of view.

I thought about my own situation. I have a number of long-standing friends who don’t like my political views, but we don’t let that get in the way. We focus on the likeable qualities we see in each other and generally succeed in setting politics to one side.
Life would be very dull if we fraternised only with people who think like us. It would be like being trapped for life in a Rotary Club meeting.

Let’s assume for a moment that Harre and Hooton really did go skiing together. Who are we to say they shouldn’t enjoy each other’s company?
Skiing with Hooton doesn’t mean having to agree with his politics. In fact the two might learn something from each other. Isn’t that preferable to shouting at each other over an ideological chasm?

The notion that we shouldn’t associate with people who think differently alarms me. Democracy is about the free exchange of ideas, but we retreat into tribal enclaves, erect barricades and refuse to have anything to do with the enemy.
We block our ears and hum loudly when anyone dares express a contrary thought. It’s as if we’re scared of being exposed to ideas that might turn out to be less heinous than we imagined. Groupthink takes over.

This happens on both the Right and the Left and has become noticeably worse since the advent of the Internet. Political blogs and websites provide fortresses where like-minded people can band together, drawing comfort and reassurance from their conformity and angrily repelling all invaders.
Anyone who challenges the consensus becomes the enemy. This can have strange consequences, as I discovered recently when I wrote a column asking whether John Key really believed in anything.

My column was picked up by conservative blogs, triggering an avalanche of venomous comment attacking me as a hand-wringing leftie.
You’ve got to laugh. No one could read a selection of my columns from the past 30 years and conclude that I’m a leftie. But I’d committed the unpardonable sin of writing a column that wasn’t slavishly pro-government.

In today’s world, it seems, you must be either 100 percent Left or 100 Right. People with fixed, rigid ideas feel threatened when anyone deviates from the norm. Infidels must be punished.
I’m not sure what you call this, but it certainly isn’t democracy as I understand it.